Learning Swedish – A Segmented Approach

Yellow Cross by Christer

How much Swedish can we learn in 3 months using a new method we’ve never tried before?

In a way, this is equal parts both a personal challenge and also an experiment. We’ve wanted to learn Swedish for a while now, mostly because of my ancestry (I’m told ‘Wik’ comes from the same Swedish root as the ‘vik’ in ‘viking’, and one of our family historians insists that there’s some evidence ancestors way back of ours were vikings).

It’s no fun if you can’t make it a challenge though, so I’ve been considering ways to ramp things up a bit. To add that challenge element I decided to see how far we can get in the language in 3 months with what I would consider a minimal amount of study. What I mean by that is, we’ll only be studying for a few hours each night on the side of our other projects – not spending 8 hours a day cramming.

I think this will be a bit more instructive since in the past when we’ve taken on a language challenge I’ve not only given us a longer timeline (6 months for Korean) but we also made it something of a side job. We dropped a lot of other projects to clear enough time every day to study intensely. It was certainly effective, but I know not everyone has the luxury to do so. Now we’ve got more writing projects to keep on top of and the responsibility of teaching classes at the self-defense school I opened, so we’ve less ability to just drop things and devote ourselves to language study.

Since we’re already making things interesting, I also wanted to change up our methods a little bit as an experiment.

Since we have less time overall, rather than focus on learning as much as possible in vocab and grammar and getting to speaking practice immediately, we’re going to segment things out.

  • Month 1 Vocab – The first month we’re going to spend entirely on vocab acquisition with no real worries about grammar, speaking, or listening practice. Right now the plan is to use an SRS system, likely Memrise, to memorize as many of the most commonly used Swedish words as possible.

    Ideally the goal here is to learn at least the first 1,000 most common words in Swedish before the first month is over so that the foundations are well laid for beginning grammar study.

  • Month 2 Grammar – The second month will be devoted entirely to grammar study. I expect there will be some inevitable continuation of vocab learning – 1,000 words will not be enough even if it’s the 1,000 most common – but learning new words won’t be the focus it’ll just have to come incidentally.

    I’m not certain yet what resources we’ll use to learn things on the grammar side, but I’ll figure it out before the second month begins. I’m certain with the Internet we will have no problem at all finding free, high quality resources for Swedish grammar study. If you do have any recommendations however, leave them in the comments.

  • Month 3 Speaking – The third and last month is when we’ll finally hit the speaking and listening practice. This basically goes against the way we’ve learned all of our other languages (speaking with natives as soon as humanly possible), but it’s this inversion that I think will make it more interesting for me. Knowing I have to wait until the third month to get to the part I really enjoy will probably also be an extra motivating factor.

    I’ll mostly be using iTalki as our primary resource for this last month. I’d like to primarily use language exchange partners where we can give them some English instruction and then they can help us out with Swedish, although if need be I’ll give in and pay for an actual official tutor on iTalki to walk us through speaking practice. It’ll depend largely on how well, or poorly, we feel we’re progressing.

Why the Compartmentalized Approach?

All of our language acquisition experiments so far have followed the same basic learning structure – memorize as much vocab as possible and get to speaking with natives immediately with a little bit of grammar study on the side to help gain a better understanding of things.

This approach has worked very well, particularly I think because language is a skill and the best way to learn a skill is practice, not study. It’s very intensive though. It can be done I’m sure in a more relaxed manner, and a lot of that intensity was likely a manufactured result of the time constraints I placed on us to ramp up the challenge aspect, but it’s a lot for some people to tackle at once.

I think this compartmentalized approach may be a little easier to swallow for some people. Rather than having a variety of things to work on, each month has it’s sole goal. We can throw ourselves into vocab acquisition and vocab acquisition alone for the first month with myopic fervor not worrying about neglecting other aspects of our study.

I think this will make it less stressful, but will it also make it less effective?

I don’t know.

That’s the fun part.

Currently I don’t think it will, but I’ll document our progress as we go along and we’ll see. The nice thing about a challenge like this is, even if I completely fail by general standards to meet the goals I’m setting for myself and it turns out on top of everything else that this different method I’m testing is an extremely inefficient way to learn a language, we’ll still speak more Swedish by the end of it than we do now. So no matter what, we win.

Any thoughts on this challenge / experiment of ours? Resources you think we should look into or use? Just want to cheer us on? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Christer

How We Learned Fluent Korean in 6 Months

Hangeul Day by The Republic of Korea

Learning fluent Korean in a 6 month timeline was one of the first challenges we took on back when we started Road to Epic – it was a big success and a lot of what we learned during the experience has influenced our articles on language learning since.

Recent renewed interest in the challenge has made me realize though that I never really did a satisfactory job of outlining exactly how we did it. That was a big oversight on my part, so I’m posting this to make up for it and lay out exactly what all we did to meet our six month deadline successfully.

I’m going to split it into three sections because that’s essentially how we broke things down.

The Vocabulary

Even when I’m not working under the constraints of a deadline, I don’t like to waste time. There are just way way too many words out there to try to learn all or even most of them – particularly in 6 months. Thankfully, you don’t need to know much vocabulary to be fluent.

We applied the 80/20 principle and focused on the most commonly used couple thousand words only, that way we were learning the words that we would be most likely to hear and use the most first and ignoring extraneous vocab like ‘defenestration’ that probably won’t come up much.

In my experience having a good handle on the first 3,000 most common words or so gives you the tools to have a fluent conversation 90% or more of the time so that’s what we focused on. 3,000 words divided into six months comes out to about 17 words per day which is totally reasonable. We learned 1,000 words in one month for a bit of a sub-challenge and, while definitely a bit work-intensive, it wasn’t all that painful to accomplish. 3,000 in six months isn’t bad at all.

To do the actual learning part we used a combination of memory hooks and spaced repetition system (SRS) learning.

At the time we mostly used Anki which you can download here.

Anki uses a spaced repetition system to show you flashcards in tailored intervals to maximize long term retention. There’s a huge library of pre-made flashcard decks and we simply chose the best looking deck of the most commonly used Korean words.

While we didn’t use it at the time, Memrise has since come out with a free iOS and Android app that uses a similar spaced repetition system but with crowd sourced pre-made memory hooks so you don’t have to come up with your own.

I currently prefer Memrise to Anki, mostly because of the convenience factor, but there’s no reason you can’t use both or whichever one you personally prefer.

Once we had our SRS program and our decks of the most common Korean words we scheduled set times everyday to practice on them just like we set scheduled times to work out.

The Grammar

For the grammar we were really only concerned initially with the very basics. Like with the vocab we made a point of focusing on the most common grammatical points first (simple present tense declaratives, interrogatives, etc.) and worried about the more complicated stuff as it came up (conditionals, subjunctives, etc.).

One of the biggest helps was one of our Korean friends who was kind enough to translate a bunch of example sentences for me that I wrote specifically to tease out some common grammatical points. I have a background in linguistics, so I knew what to look for and wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach for most people unless you’re into grammar on its own. If you do want to find someone to translate some example sentences for you but don’t know anyone who speaks your target language I recommend iTalki and Lang-8 which we’ll get to in the next section on practice.

What I would recommend is a combination of Talk To Me In Korean and Monash University’s My Korean.

Talk To Me In Korean (henceforth TTMIK because I’m lazy) is one of my absolute favorite resources for Korean language learning. On their site at TalkToMeInKorean.com they have a ton of excellent grammar lessons. We jumped around quite a bit since we knew what we wanted to target first and had the most questions about, but you can do the lessons in order if you’re not concerned about specific things.

My Korean is a free textbook put out by Monash University. You can download it here for free. We used My Korean similarly to how we used TTMIK, mostly jumping around and targeting things we specifically wanted to practice or learn. Again though you can go cover to cover and get a ton out of it. It’s one of the best Korean textbooks we’ve come across.

Like the vocab practice we had an hour or so set aside each night of our six months to either go back over a grammatical point we were still struggling with or to learn a new one that we hadn’t gone over yet.

The Practice

Last but absolutely not least comes the actual practice.

If your goal is fluency, i.e. being able to carry on a casual, fluid conversation with a minimal amount of breaks, then practice is just as important as the other two above. Speaking a language is a skill and just like how you can’t learn to swim by reading lots of tutorials and never getting in a pool you can’t learn to be fluent by doing all studying and no practice.

In our case we made heavy use of our native Korean speaking friends alongside the sites iTalki and Lang-8.

iTalki is an excellent resource that you can use to find native speakers to practice with or even dedicated language teachers you can have remote lessons with over Skype.

In our case we used a pretty even mix of both. We didn’t have time scheduled everyday for Skype sessions, but we had them as often as possible and filled in conversations with our local friends as much as we could.

We used Lang-8 as often as possible as well by writing posts on there using whatever grammar item we were learning at that point as much as possible. That gave us a way to practice them while still putting a little thought into things and get corrections from native speakers in a written form that we could save long term.

In addition to these three areas there was a lot of passive learning (watching Korean media, listening to Korean music, reading Korean news and books, etc.) but I don’t consider these things to be nearly as important a the dedicated and focused learning and practice.

Have any other questions about what we did or any suggestions of things you’d add to help other learners? Any good resources for people learning something other than Korean? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: The Republic of Korea

The 330 Day Productivity Challenge

Prague Orloj by Luca Gennari

330 days of consistent productivity – can I pull it off?

It’s been a while since I’ve put myself up for any kinds of challenges so I decided recently that I was way overdue for one. The problem was, I wasn’t sure what kind of challenge I should take.

On top of that, things have been kind of crazy lately and my normal writing schedule has been completely obliterated. As a result I have a huge backlog of articles I’ve been wanting to write and publish, but haven’t been able to actually sit down and take care of all of them. Additionally having recently wrecked one of my ankles in a bad landing while practicing vaults, I’ve been struggling to get my old mobility back now that it’s finished healing.

As a result I’ve decided to make this latest challenge all about productivity.

Specifically long term productivity.

Tortoise or Hare?

In general when it comes to productivity styles there tend to be two categories of people – tortoises and hares.

Like the fable I’m borrowing the titles from, tortoises take things slow and gradually. They focus on consistency of work over quantity of work. They’re less concerned with getting a lot done right now than they are with getting a little done at a time that will eventually accumulate into a large volume of work. Tortoises tend to not have a lot to show for their work at the outset, but wind up with a lot in the end.

Tortoises are marathoners.

Hares work the opposite way. Rather than focus on taking things slow and gradually they like to work fast and frenetically. They focus on insane bursts of super-productivity followed by stretches of repose – quantity of work done in a specific period of time is more important than working consistently. After a productive period a Hare will often have a large volume of work to show for their effort but will then take a long break where they don’t get much if anything done.

Hares are sprinters.

Now, I don’t honestly think there is any inherent advantage of one approach over the other. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

Personally I have always been a hare. My habits when it comes to productivity are to go a long stretch where I just don’t get anything done. I feel out of it. Uninspired and entirely devoid of motivation. Then, out of nowhere, in a manic burst productive fervor I will destroy a week’s worth of tasks all at once. I’m the kind of person who goes two weeks without doing any work and then in one coffee fueled frenzy writes ten thousand words. I’m the kind of person who will stay up until 4 a.m. because I’m so fired up I can’t sleep until I finish whatever I’m working on.

I wrote my 34,000 word graduate thesis in 5 days. We’d had roughly six months to work on it, and I basically did nothing until that last week, at which point I went into a sleep deprived, hyper-caffeinated, cloistered work mode and got the whole thing done. I’ll have you know I got an A on it too.

In writing this, describing the peaks and valleys of my surges of productivity, it occurs to me it sounds a little like I have some kind of psychological problem. I guess that’s something to worry about another time.

So what’s the point of this tortoise and hare business?

Changing Teams

Like I said I don’t think there’s anything inherently better or worse about either modality. Unlike the original fable in real life there are times when it’s more beneficial to be a tortoise and times when the advantage is the hare’s.

That being said, I have noticed that a pretty large number of successful people tend to be tortoises rather than hares. I also realized that, there being advantages and disadvantages to each, the best possible state to be in would be one where you could switch from one method to the other as the situation dictates.

That’s how this latest challenge was born.

As I said, I am a dyed in the wool hare. (Died in the fur? Whatever)

I think it would be extremely beneficial to me to train myself to embrace tortoise-hood in order to learn how to change from one way to another whensoever the situation I’m in predicates an advantage of one over the other. So I’m going to work to become a tortoise.

The Challenge Goals

The bread and butter of tortoise style productivity is an extremely long stretch of consistent productivity over the manic bursts I’m accustomed to.

That being the goal, rather than set a hard number of things to accomplish which would tempt me to work ahead in bursts and then take some time off I’m going to make my goal to perform certain actions every single day. I’ve done 30 day challenges similar to this in the past, but 30 days has never been long enough to actually force any kind of change in my behavior or habits.

So I’m turning it up to 11.

Rather than 30 days my challenge is to go for 330 days without missing a single day of productivity. Specifically, in order to target a handful of areas I particularly want to work on, my challenge will be to:

  • Write One Article Per Day for 330 Days

  • Mobilize My Ankle for 4 Minutes Per Day for 330 Days

  • Learn 15 New Words Per Day for 330 Days

I’ll write a post about how I intend to tackle this challenge tomorrow when I begin it, but those are the goals I’m shooting for. Ideally by the end of it I’ll have spent enough time in a consistent productive mode that I’ll finally be habituated to it and will be able to switch back and forth from one method to another.

What do you think? Can I do it or am I just setting myself up for failure? Have you ever tried doing something consistently for close to a year? How did it go? Any productivity tortoises out there want to share some tips? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Luca Gennari

50,000 Word Challenge: Part 5

M4 Sherman Tank - V2 by DuneChaser

This is the fifth and final installment of my 50,000 words in 30 days challenge. It’s a completely unedited first draft written with the primary goal of getting out as many words as possible in a short time, so don’t expect too much from it. More parts will come each week as the challenge progresses. You can read the previous chapter here.

Chapter 5: Detour

Eli knew of nothing but running. The world around him ceased to exist, falling away into a waking dream. The only thing he was still aware of was the entrancing beat of his own footfalls. And the bobbing of the people around him keeping time with the slap of his feet in the mud.

After a time, who knows how long, the downpour relented and trickled away to nothing. The dark thunderheads bled away from the night sky and the world shone for them under the still mostly full moon. There was a freshness about it, glistening under the moon with the sheen of a fresh rain. Eli was dead to it though. He knew the ache of his knees. He knew the distant heaving of his haggard breath. He knew running.

They were still running when dawn broke over the horizon. As the first warm fingers of light met the group Maj. Hawkins held up a hand and signaled they could stop to rest. It was as if that gesture had dispelled some enchantment over Eli’s legs. Now unensorcelled they collapsed from under him like a marionette with severed strings.

A small thicket surrounded the place Maj. Hawkins had chosen to stop, and they began to set up camp there once the breath had returned to them. Normally it wouldn’t have been hard work, but after the ordeal of the previous night it was near Herculean. Once they were finally settled Maj. Hawkins gathered everyone around to determine their bearings.

They had covered more ground the first night than they had originally intended. Those monsters had hunted them relentlessly through the night, never quite catching up but always calling behind them, taunting promises of a violent, bloody end. It had driven them on and even when the hooting finally ceased sometime in the night they refused to stop moving. They had run twenty five miles that night, covering the distance twice as fast as intended.

“The good news,” Maj. Hawkins announced as he studied their maps, “is that means we have some time to rest before we continue.

“What’s the bad news?” Cpt. O’Donnell asked.

“The bad news is that we veered off course a little. We should be here.” He planted his finger on the map. “Instead, we’re here. Five miles away.” He slid his finger a few inches over to indicate a different spot. “We’re about five miles or so away from where we should be. In addition, now there’s a town between us and the target.”

“So how much farther to go?” Sgt. Lewis asked.

“About ten miles in a straight line. We can’t go in a straight line though, unless we wanted to march right through the center of that town. We’ll have to go around to be safe, which means another five miles or so.”

“We can cover that,” Agent Walker stated simply. “When do we break camp?”

Even Maj. Hawkins looked up at her as if she were a little crazy.

“Tomorrow. We’ve covered more distance than we expected. I will not take my men into battle without proper rest.”

“Tomorrow!?” Agent Walker exclaimed. “We should be moving out now. The longer we wait the stronger their army becomes and-”

“-and it will be much worse if we fail our mission entirely because we weren’t prepared,” Maj. Hawkins finished. “Rest is a weapon too, Agent Walker. Don’t forget that.”

She looked like she was going to continue to protest but the major’s tone had made it bluntly clear that there was no room for discussion in the matter. With a soft humph she spun, the flames of her ponytail reflecting the light of the dawn sun, and marched back to her tent on the edge of their camp.

The rest of the day was devoted to recovering from their harried scramble the previous night. Maj. Hawkins assigned watches in shifts, each rotating so that they would all have enough time to sleep before moving out the next night. Eli was chosen to be one of the first to sleep. Part of him felt it was an acknowledgment that he was the weakest member of the group, but he wasn’t offended by it. He was too exhausted to be offended by anything, and he appreciated the rest.

Dark dreams visited him in his tent. Dreams of teeth, claws and blood. No matter how far he ran they always caught up to him. No matter where he hid they always knew where he was. There was nothing he could do to escape. The last thing he saw was a row of bloody daggers at his throat.

He bolted upright with a start at a touch on his shoulder. Agent Walker crouched in the tent next to him. She had jabbed him on the shoulder to wake him.

“Relax,” she said as he struggled to regain composure, “It’s our turn to keep watch.”

“Our turn?”

“Hawkins decided we would keep watch together.”

Eli scowled a little. He had hoped there might be an opportunity for him to get away again. There would have been at least a slim chance for it when he was posted on guard. Now it would be impossible.

“What, doesn’t he think I’m capable of keeping watch on my own?” Eli asked bitterly.

“I guess not.”

She got up and pushed her way out of his tent. Eli rubbed his eyes in a futile attempt to wipe the sleep from them and then followed her.

Outside the day had progressed to late afternoon and the setting sun hung low in a darkling sky. Their watch would likely be the last of the night before they broke camp. Silently Eli and Agent Walker walked to their place in the center of camp and sat facing out from the center. Agent Walker positioned herself a few feet away so that her back was facing Eli’s and they were looking out over opposite directions.

They sat that way in silence for a while, like stone gargoyles keeping watch on the campsite. Agent Walker was the first to break the quiet.

“I know what you were doing last night after we landed,” she said.

Eli was glad they were back to back and she couldn’t see the shock that flashed across his face. “What I was doing? What do you mean?”

“The reason you were in the woods.”

“I got confused after the landing, dragged around by the wind.” Eli had rehearsed his excuse while they were setting up camp. “I got lost in there, and then those things started chasing me…”

“You were running away.”

“I wasn’t going to stand and fight all three of them.”

“Not from the dinosaurs.” She said coldly. “You were running away from us. You were deserting.”

The chirp of crickets replaced the void their words left as they fell silent again.

“So what are you going to do?” Eli finally asked.

“Nothing,” Agent Walker replied. “What good would it do now? Besides, I’m pretty sure Hawkins already knows.”

“What?”

“Oh I’m not certain he knows, but I suspect it. Are you really so dense? He didn’t assign us both to watch duty because he thought you were too incompetent of a soldier to yell if you saw something. He was worried you would run off and leave the camp unprotected. I’m your babysitter.”

For a second Eli was a little stung by the realization that Maj. Hawkins didn’t trust him. He quickly realized though that he had actually planned on running away when it was his turn for guard duty.

The stillness crept back in as Eli considered what she had said. He had blown it. If they knew, there would be no way they would leave him unsupervised for even a minute. He found his thoughts drifting back home. Eli wondered if he would ever get to see it again. He turned around to face Agent Walker.

“How do you do it?” he asked, his voice uncontrollably cracking.

She looked back over her shoulder and met his gaze. A single thin eyebrow arched upward in response.

“How do you do it?” he repeated. “How do you put yourself into this so willingly? This is insane. Five of us are supposed to sneak through Germany and destroy some secret laboratory?” Eli’s voice began to get louder as his self-control slipped. “And dinosaurs… Dinosaurs! I nearly got torn to shreds last night by a pack of Deinonychus. Who knows what else is out there. I just want to be home…”

Agent Walker waited for a few minutes until she was sure he had finished.

“I want to go home too,” she said quietly, “but I can’t.”

“Ugh, why? Because you have some duty? Because you have to defend our country? You would lose your honor if you didn’t fight?”

“Because I no longer have a home Eli,” she said firmly.

He fell silent. The firm tone of her voice had shocked him almost as much as her calling him by his first name.

“I grew up in Poland. When I was a little girl, my parents sent me off with my uncle to the United States for schooling. I stayed there, living with my uncle while I attended college. We started getting news of what was happening in Germany, the Gleiwitz incident, the threats that were being made. My uncle left at the end of August in ‘39 to get my parents out.”

She paused to collect her thoughts. Eli could tell that this was difficult for her. She had turned back away from him, her red ponytail falling in a curtain between them. Even with her back turned to him he could feel that familiar prick of rage that had always surrounded her. She drew in a slow breath then continued.

“I didn’t hear anything from him for a week, then two weeks. Word came that Germany had invaded my country. I listened intently to the radio every night for news. Finally, a single letter came. My entire town had been destroyed. They had put up some resistance to the Germans and they decided to make an example of them. Every man, woman and child there was killed and the whole area was burned to ashes.”

A spark of anger began creeping into her voice as she continued.

“I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do, everyone I had ever loved had been taken from me just like that. Eventually, I decided I wanted to fight. The U.S. hadn’t joined the war yet, so I cleaned out all of my uncle’s savings. I bought a gun and tickets for a boat to France.”

She chuckled softly. “Looking back on it, I’m not really sure what I even intended to do. I made it all the way to Paris when a man found me. He said he represented an agency in the United States. He offered me training, resources, said the time would come when I would be able to get my revenge. I’m still not sure how he knew, but it was too good of an offer to pass up. He got me out of France just as Germany was invading Belgium.”

The fire in her eyes startled Eli as she turned to face him. “You want to know how I can do this? You want to know how I can put my life on the line? It’s not for honor, or duty. It’s for revenge. It’s because I have spent every waking minute of the last five years thinking of nothing but what they did to my family. To my home.”

She shuddered a little as she realized that she had let herself get carried away a little. Sighing loudly she leaned back to look at the evening sky. The first pinpricks of starlight were fighting to be seen in the growing darkness.

“I’m not even sure why I told you all that,” she said curtly. “You can finish the watch alone. Don’t run off.”

With that she stood and walked off to her tent. It was hard to imagine how a person could possibly slam a tent closed behind them. She managed.

Eli sat alone in the center of camp watching the last few rays of sunlight dim and fade on the horizon. He reflected on what Agent Walker had said. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t help but feel a little ashamed. He was ashamed because of what he had said, how he had lost control, and because deep down he could sense she had opened up and told him a very personal thing.

The starry curtain of night was draped fully over the sky before the rest of the camp began to stir. Eli caught the almost imperceptible flash of displeasure in Maj. Hawkins’s eyes when he found Eli alone in the center of camp, but said nothing. He gathered the group together for a quick meal before they broke camp. Few words were exchanged while they ate, but Eli noticed that several times during the meal Agent Walker’s eyes darted away from his, before wandering back when he wasn’t looking.

Tearing down and repacking the camp took half the time it had taken to assemble it now that everyone was fed and well rested. When they were ready, Maj. Hawkins led them back out into the woods, this time in the proper direction. They would skirt around the northern edge of the town that lay between them and the laboratory, making use of the thick woods to keep them from being discovered.

They marched at a good clip through the countryside. It was nowhere near the mad dash from the previous night, but it was no leisurely stroll either. They were off course and nearly behind schedule. If they didn’t make the evacuation point at the scheduled time then they would be walking back to France.

Maj. Hawkins took the point position. How he could tell where they were going in the dead of night in a thick German forest was beyond Eli, though he knew better than to question it. Behind him was Cpt. O’Donnell followed by Sgt. Lewis. He was directly behind them and could hear bits of muffled conversation pass between the two, but couldn’t catch anything of substance. A snippet of a joke or the tail end of a laugh, never more.

Behind Eli, Agent Walker brought up the rear. He felt like he should say something. Even if it was only an apology for how he had behaved last night. Something stopped him though. The words jammed in his through as he tried to force them out, and eventually he just gave up. They marched on that way for several hours, until abruptly the line stopped. Eli practically ran into the back of Sgt. Lewis before he noticed.

“Hey, why’d we stop?”

“Shhhh,” Sgt. Lewis chided sharply. He took his index finger from his lips and tapped his right ear. “Listen,” he whispered.

Eli listened attentively. A short distance ahead of them he realized he could hear a mixture of sounds. There was the familiar rumbling of engines, some quieter than others. Blended in was another rumbling sound, it had a shuffling quality to it, as if men were beating on giant drums as they dragged them down the street. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it scared Eli. He had learned over the past few days that new sounds were usually bad omens for him.

Maj. Hawkins signaled to move forward slowly and silently. The team crept forward, taking care not to place their weight on an errant stick or bend a branch too far when slipping by. Painstakingly they crawled forward until they found the source of the noise.

A road cut through the forest, leading into the town they were skirting around. In the full moon they could clearly see what was rumbling down it. A long column of soldiers marched down the road into the town. The softer rumbling had been the sound of trucks and cars that accompanied them, carrying supplies and more soldiers. The deeper engine noises proved to be tanks, rumbling by interspersed among the troops. Eli gasped as he saw what the strange drumming noise was and Sgt. Lewis’s hand clamped firmly over his mouth.

Marching behind the main column of troops were three tyrannosaurs. They were smaller than the ones Eli had seen on the beach. He guessed that they weren’t fully grown yet, but that didn’t make them any less terrifying. They were being led by collars chained to trucks. Though they had no reins, each had a man in a saddle on their backs. Behind the tyrannosaurs lumbered what looked like walking tanks. Moonlight glinted off of the bony plates that covered their low heads and ran along their backs ending in a bulging club at the end of their tails. Bolted into the bony shell of each ones back was a machine gun mount, the gunners standing behind a mental plate welded to the gun.

Behind the anklyosaurs marched a line of other horrors. Triceratops horridus, Allosaurus fragilis, Stegosaurus armatus, Dimetrodon grandis… Trucks drove by with caged packs of deinonychus, velociraptors and troodons. Men rode on saddled pachycephalosaurs, metal plates had been fused on to each of their heads. Many of the lumbering beasts wore what looked like armor, and banners were draped over their sides. The grim parade passed within twenty feet of their hiding place, tucked into the shadows of the woods by the side of the road.

Sgt. Lewis never removed his hand from Eli’s mouth as they passed and Eli was grateful for it. He knew if he hadn’t been held back he probably would have screamed. He didn’t know if would have been from terror or from wonder, but he would have screamed and it would have killed them.

After a torturous amount of time the column finally passed away down the street. Maj. Hawkins gave the rumbling of engines and tread of massive feet fade into the distance before he cleared them to dash across the open road. They didn’t stop to discuss what they had seen there, but pressed on in silence. Even Sgt. Lewis and Cpt. O’Donnell stopped their quiet joking, either awed or shaken by what they had witnessed.

Eli followed them blindly, his feet moved of their own accord. His eyes stayed locked on the back of Sgt. Lewis but they stared through him paying only enough attention to step where he stepped and avoid the lash of whipping branches as he passed. Eli’s real focus was turned inward, struggling to process the prehistoric menagerie marching toward the town.

He couldn’t believe how many different dinosaurs they had created. The tyrannosaurs and pteranodons had been terrifying enough, seeing that had such an extensive variety of horrors made him feel absolutely hopeless. How can they possibly hope to beat that? he wondered. The task ahead of them had seemed impossible enough already, now it just seemed hopeless.

The break of dawn signaled that they had traveled far enough. Beneath its rosy light Maj. Hawkins directed them to set up camp again in a small sheltered clearing. No one spoke as camp was constructed, and the work went quickly. Once the major had seen that everything was satisfactory he called everyone together.

“Our intel told us there were no major troop movements in the area,” he said, casting a long look at Agent Walker. “What was that?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I know as much as you do. The area was supposed to be all but empty, only a few patrols. It seemed they wanted to keep the area around the facility looking low-key.”

“A force that big is anything but low-key,” Cpt. O’Donnell muttered.

“He’s right. Either they’re shifting troops around a lot faster than we thought, or we’re operating on very bad intel here. I don’t like the implications of either. We need to know as much as we can about their forces.” He looked up at Eli. “Care to fill us in, private?”

Eli was startled that Maj. Hawkins had singled him out.

“Me, sir? I don’t know anything about their military.”

“Not their military, private. The dinosaurs. They told me you’re a paleontologist. Tell us about the dinosaurs.”

Eli began pouring out everything he knew about the ones they had seen. Presumed diets, their physical structures, everything he could possibly think of. Maj. Hawkins raised a single hand, cutting Eli’s lecture short.

“What about their behaviors? How they hunt. How they act.”

“I… I don’t know. All we’ve got to go on are bones. We can make educated guesses based on where we find them, their morphology, other evidence, but there aren’t exactly live ones we can study.” Eli caught himself. “At least, there weren’t before.”

Maj. Hawkins sat thoughtfully before speaking. “Alright. I’m not comfortable flying blindly like this. We don’t know what kind of enemies are in the area, we don’t know how many men are stationed in that town and I’m beginning to wonder if any other information has been incorrect. We need to know just what they’ve been gathering here. Private Watts, you and Agent Walker are going to scout the edges of town. Find out what we’re up against here.”

Agent Walker just nodded, but Eli’s jaw hung open.

“What?” he stuttered, “Why me?”

“Agent Walker is an expert on German military forces, she can tell me exactly what kind of armor and manpower they’ve been massing. You are an expert on dinosaurs, you can tell me exactly what kind of monsters are waiting for us.”

Eli understood he had no choice in the matter.

“We’ll set out as soon as you’re ready,” Agent Walker said. “It will be easier while more of the town is still sleeping. Bring your knife, your sidearm and your binoculars. Nothing else.”

She spun and strode off to her tent to gather her equipment. Sighing, Eli did the same. He had to remove more equipment than he had to pack. He hated to leave his Thompson behind. It seemed crazy to go out there armed with only a Colt and his knife. There would be no way to hide the boxy submachine gun though, and he knew she would never let him leave camp carrying it. Somehow it had grown on him, even though he hadn’t used it since the firing range. The weight on his shoulders was reassuring.

Stripped of most of his equipment, he rejoined Agent Walker at the center of the camp. She had also removed most of her own equipment. The Ithaca shotgun and compact grease gun that had hung from her slender shoulders were missing. There were no longer any grenades filling the loops on the front of her dark uniform. She still had both of her sidearms, a Colt like Eli’s jutted from her shoulder holster and another one he didn’t recognize rested at her right hip. For the first time he also noticed she had two blades. One hung upside down on her right shoulder opposite the holster, the other was tucked horizontal to her belt in the small of her back.

Satisfied that she had studied the map enough to find their way to the outskirts of the town, she told Eli to follow her and they set off into the woods. They went silently. He continually had to suppress the instinctual urge to say something, to make small talk. The heavy silence felt awkward and uncomfortable to Eli. He reminded himself this wasn’t a friendly stroll through the woods. Idle chatter in the wrong place could get them killed.

The route to the outskirts of town were long and slow, though the first sounds of civilization began reaching their ears well before they came into sight of it. The map had indicated a small ridge that rose above the tree line and Agent Walker had chosen that as the best place to do their reconnaissance. They crept slowly to the top, keeping their eyes and ears open for patrols, human or otherwise.

Inching their way to the edge, they found themselves looking out over the town. It was comprised mostly of squat wooden and stone buildings. The timbers of the rooftops joined in sharp points, making the silhouettes of the houses against the dawn sun look like a dark row of teeth. The houses radiated outward from a large square in the center of town. Around the square the fleet of vehicles sat quiet. There were countless trucks and cars. They scanned the town through their binoculars, careful to hang a tree bough over them to hide the glinting of the lenses in the sun.

In all they counted ten light tanks. Five were stationed in the north end of the city, three on the south road and two more in the square. The center of the square served as a makeshift livestock pen. The crates and cages of smaller dinosaurs had been unloaded off to one corner. Most of them had woken up and were squawking and hooting noisily. The tyrannosaurs and the allosaurs were chained to the fountain in the center of the square. The other herbivorous dinosaurs had been corralled together as best as possible by a box of trucks, another square of trucks formed the pens for the dimetrodons.

Eli counted the numbers of each dinosaur and worked to memorize which ones were present. He began wishing he had brought a pen and paper, but realized that was a luxury they didn’t have. As he was looking back to recount how many allosaurs there were compared to the tyrannosaurs, he caught sight of a familiar looking man striding out to the fountain from the large cathedral on its north side. He was dressed in a crisp black uniform, the sun glinting off the bright black polish of his boots. Through the binoculars Eli could make out a short crop of bright blond hair creeping out from his jet black officer’s hat.

He came out to inspect the pack of theropods, barking orders at the men who followed him out. He singled out the largest of the tyrannosaurs to the men who were with him, then spun abruptly and marched toward a the front of the square to begin inspecting the other animals. Eli realized why the man looked so familiar when he saw his deathly white face, punctuated by a new jet black eye patch.

“Heinrich von Schädel…” he whispered as he watched him.

A sharp gasp cut through the air to his right. He looked over at Agent Walker lying in the dirt next to him. She had dropped her binoculars and was staring at him intently. The embers of range that had smoldered in her eyes since he met her roared into an inferno.

“What did you say?” she demanded sharply.

“Heinrich von Schädel,” Eli replied slowly. “I saw him on the beach. He’s down in the square looking over the dinosaurs. I gave him that eye patch, so I’d recognize him anywhere.”

Agent Walker’s intense stare had never broken from Eli’s eyes as he spoke, but a nearly imperceptible shake had started within her. Not bother to control the tremors she snatched the binoculars from the dirt and pressed them to her eyes.

“Von Schädel. You said he’s the one with the eye patch?” she demanded.

“Um… well, he’s…”

“Tell me!” she shouted.

“Yes! He’s the blond one in black, with the eye patch.”

“Stay here.” She shoved herself up from the dirt and charged back into the brush racing down the steep hill along the crest of the ridge toward the edge of the town jamming her binoculars back into their pouch as she ran.

“What? Wait!” Eli called out but she was gone. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t figure out what she was doing. For a second he thought about following her, but she was already halfway down to the edge of the first buildings. It occurred to him that now might be his chance to get away. He shuffled in the dirt pulling himself away from the edge of the cliff so he wouldn’t be seen when he stood. This was it, he could make it this time. In the daylight there would be no stumbling into more raptors, no bumbling into patrols.

He got two steps into the woods behind the ridge before the guilt hit him. He couldn’t just leave Agent Walker charging down into the town by herself. It was suicide. What could he do though? There would be no way for him to help her from way up there, and he wasn’t about to run into town after her. After all, he didn’t even know what she was trying to do. Yet, the thought of just abandoning her sunk into the pit of his stomach like a lead weight. He couldn’t do it.

He finally decided on a compromise. He would watch through the binoculars just long enough to make sure she did whatever she was going to do and got out safely. Once he was sure Agent Walker was clear, he could slip away before she got back to the top of the ridge.

Belly down in the dirt again he crawled back out to the edge of the rock abutment and pressed his binoculars to his eyes. He scanned the town frantically for any sign of where she had gone. A glint of red fluttered through his lens and he snapped back to find her pressed against the edge of a building two blocks from the square. A German soldier was walking slowly down the street toward the edge of town from the square. He looked like he was whistling something to himself. Eli thought he looked like he was having a pretty good morning. At least, until he walked by Agent Walker.

If he hadn’t happened to turn and look down the alley he may have made it, but he froze as he saw Agent Walker pressed into the wall. Like a viper she snatched him into the alley, a hand clamped tightly over his mouth. There was the flare of sunlight catching a blade and the alley wall was stained the color of Agent Walker’s hair. She let the man’s body slump down into the shadows. A pool of crimson grew steadily from his open, ragged throat. She peered carefully down the man street and then slipped around the corner toward the square.

She ducked behind a parked truck as a small group of soldiers passed by. She flattened out and slid forward under the truck, creeping closer to the square. Eli followed her gaze, trying to figure out what in the world had possessed her to storm into town. Directly in front of her he saw him. Von Schädel. She was going after von Schädel. What was she thinking? The whole idea was insane.

Eli was riveted to the binoculars as he watched her slowly creep toward the square. He lost sight of her beneath a line of trucks and realized she must be crawling her way beneath them up to the square. A soldier stepped away from the edge of the square and ducked behind one of the trucks, lighting a cigarette out of the view of the square. His smoke break confirmed Eli’s theory. He watched as the man’s eyes went wide and he was practically sucked beneath the trucks. A sanguine streak jetted out from under the vehicle, and Agent Walker crawled out to take his place, her uniform stained in blended shades of brown and red.

She had almost made it to the edge of the square when things went wrong.

The men who had passed by Agent Walker before had turned around and were coming back. As they strolled up the street toward the square one made the same mistake the first had made and glanced down the alley. Agent Walker had hid the body well, but the pool of blood had chosen its own course and was slowly running out into the street. The man grabbed his companions and then ran over to the alley, uncovering the still-warm corpse.

All three men began shouting at the top of their lungs and one produced a whistle from his breast pocket blowing a sharp clear note as they ran back to the square. Agent Walker had chosen just that moment to advance and as all eyes turned toward the shrill call of the whistle in the street, she was left standing in the open. Soldiers charged at her from everywhere. No doubt intending to make it her last act, she whipped both pistols from their holsters and leveled them at von Schädel.

Two sharp cracks rang out in the square as she fired both pistols, but the man didn’t fall. A triumphant smile bloomed beneath his jet black eye patch as he strode up to Agent Walker lying on the paved stone of the square. A soldier had tackled her right as she had fired. The lead intended to rip the life from von Schädel was embedded harmlessly in the timbers of a nearby house.

Eli watched powerlessly as the men disarmed her and pulled her to her feet. Von Schädel barked a few more commands and a soldier struck her over the back of the head with his rifle. She fell limp in their arms and the soldiers dragged her off across the square. For a moment Eli was rigid with the terror at the feat that they were about to throw her to the tyrannosaurs. They didn’t pause at the fountain though, and dragged her further off to the cathedral, it’s heavy wooden doors slamming shut as von Schädel followed them in.

Panic filled Eli as he lowered the binoculars back to the dirt. Once he was sure she was safe he had planned to bolt. Instead she was in even more danger and he was the only one who knew. He ran through all the options he had. If he ran now he could escape easily. He knew it. Maj. Hawkins and the others wouldn’t suspect anything was amiss until close to nightfall, and he could be miles away by then. What would become of Agent Walker though?

Eli swore angrily in the dirt. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t just run away when she was captured like that. What could he possibly do though. He was no trained operative. Agent Walker was a million times more skilled than he was and she had gotten caught. How could Eli possibly hope to rescue her? He had to tell Maj. Hawkins. He jumped up from the dirt and raced down the cliff, veering off from the way Agent Walker had gone and taking the path back to camp.

He burst breathlessly into the clearing where they made camp and was greeted by the barrel of Cpt. O’Donnell’s Johnson light machine gun pressed firmly into his mouth.

Cpt. O’Donnell cursed Eli and yanked the weapon from between his teeth. “You idiot! What are you doing crashing into the middle of camp like that, I about blew your head off.”

Eli gasped and coughed and yammered out everything he could about what had just happened. Words and sentences tripped and fell over each other in a garbled mess as they competed for breath with Eli’s screaming muscles. Finally he succeeded in getting the message across that Agent Walker had been captured and Cpt. O’Donnell rushed off to wake Maj. Hawkins and Sgt. Lewis.

Maj. Hawkins burst out of his tent and ran to Eli while Cpt. O’Donnell went to wake Sgt. Lewis. Eli’s breath had returned to him, and his thoughts fought their way back into a coherent order. He recounted everything that had transpired to Maj. Hawkins, pausing only once to bring Cpt. O’Donnell and Sgt. Lewis up to speed before continuing. When Eli finished his story, Maj. Hawkins released his shoulders and took a step back. For the first time Eli recognized the look of genuine concern splayed across his stoic face.

“So what do we do?” Eli asked.

“You have to ask?” said Cpt. O’Donnell. “We go down there, be bust some heads, we rescue Agent Walker and we burn the place down on our way out.”

“We can’t just charge in there,” Eli protested. “There are hundreds of soldiers. They have tanks, not to mention all those dinosaurs. We wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“Why do we even have to go get her?” All heads turned to Sgt. Lewis as his question hung with the puff of smoke from his mouth. “It was crazy of her to run off down there but she knew what she was doing. She got herself into this mess, why do we have to go get her?”

Eli was shocked at his suggestion. “You would just abandon her?”

“Why not?”

“She’s one of us!”

“One of us?” Sgt. Lewis scoffed. “She’s not one of us. She’s a spook. An assassin, not a soldier. She answers to that G-man that gave us all the shoddy intel.”

“For this mission she is under my command,” Maj. Hawkins stated firmly. “I do not intend to leave one of my own behind.”

“Then what’s the plan?”

“Gear up. We’re heading into town.”

With that the three mean broke off to their tents to prepare. Eli rushed off to his own tent to reclaim the gear he had left behind for the scouting. He looped the strap of the Thompson back over his shoulder, satisfied to feel its comforting weight again. He stuffed every pocket he could with ammunition and tucked as many grenades as he uniform would handle into every place they would fit. He hoped it wouldn’t come down to an outright battle, the odds weren’t in their favor to survive it, but if that’s what it came down to he wanted to be ready. Satisfied that he was armed to the teeth, he raced back into the center of camp.

The three other men had been quicker than him in their preparations, but all three were just as thorough, each looking like a walking armory. Maj. Hawkins had even ducked into Agent Hawkins’s tent and her shotgun and submachine gun were slung over his left shoulder.

“I thought she might want these once we’re in there,” he said, following Eli’s gaze. “Well, are we all ready?” Everyone nodded in silent assent. “Then lead the way private.”

They raced as quickly as they could through the woods up to the crest of the ridge where Eli had watched her get dragged off. As they crouched there surveying the town Eli pointed out the cathedral where she had been taken. The town had come alive as a result of the intruder, and soldiers swarmed through the streets. The dinosaurs shuffled restlessly in the square amid the hornets nest of activity that stirred around them.

They wouldn’t stand a chance going down the street Agent Walker had used to slip into town. There was too much activity in and around the square. Their best option looked to be slipping around the outskirts of the city to get behind the cathedral. Hopefully there would be a back or side entrance they could use to get to her.

“We’re going to need a diversion. Something to draw attention away from the cathedral. Nick?”

“I’m on it sir.” Cpt. O’Donnell slid away from the ledge and started down the hill following the path Agent Walker had taken.

“We’ll also need some covering fire. If there are no other exits we’re going to be forced out on the square. Think you can keep us out of trouble, Holden?”

“No problem, boss.” Sgt. Lewis’s Springfield slid up next to him and he peered down the scope at the square, hands expertly adjusting the dials on the sides.

“That leaves you and me private. Let’s go escort the good Miss Walker out of town.”

Maj. Hawkins pushed himself away from the ledge and began trekking down the opposite side of the cliff face, toward the far end of the town. Eli hurried after him, taking care not to slip and tumble down the ridge. By the time they had descended, they found themselves at the back of a a large stone and wood house. In the distance, Eli could see Sgt. Lewis had quickly gathered a handful of boughs from the forest behind him and built a low blind. The workmanship was impressive, Eli knew where to look but even he had trouble finding him.

Eli and Maj. Hawkins ducked into the first alleyway and began winding their way to the looming spire of the the cathedral ahead of them. Twice they ducked into the shadows to avoid passing soldiers. There was no use picking a fight until the last possible moment. Finally they came out on a small courtyard. It sat behind the cathedral, sandwiching it between itself and the town square on the other side. Six guards stood around the large double doors at the top of the steps leading into the building.

Aside from the six guards at the door, the courtyard was devoid of life – empty of the bustle that gripped the rest of the town. Eli and the major waited.

“What now?” Eli asked.

“Be patient, if I know Nick our diversion will be arriving soon.”

As if on cue, a series of thundering booms shook the town from on the other side of the square. Peering out of the alley Eli could see enormous plumes of fire blossoming over the rooftops and dissolving into black clouds of smoke.

“Right on cue.” Smiled Maj. Hawkins. Before Eli could react he stepped out into the courtyard. The men guarding the door had turned at the thunderous noise and noticed Maj. Hawkins too late. Fire burst from his weapon as he fired and the six men fell one by one into crumpled, bloody heaps.

He raced up into the gory pile with Eli close at his heels, clicking a fresh clip into his BAR. His shoulder slammed heavily into the doors when he reached them. They shook violently as he struggled to force them open, but the lock refused to give. Eli was pushed to the side as Maj. Hawkins’s Browning fell to hang from its straps. He pulled Agent Walker’s Ithaca from his hip and leveled the barrel at a sharp angle to the door lock.

The boom of the shotgun was deafening in the alcove of the cathedral doors as the wood around the lock was rent into jagged splinters. The major’s leg chambered in front of him and his boot finished the job. The boom of the cathedral doors being kicked open rivaled the sound of the shotgun blast as it echoed down the hallway leading to the sanctuary.

Eli rushed in behind Maj. Hawkins and they charged down the hallway into the open hall of the cathedral. Even with the dull booms of detonated explosives in the distance and the fresh blood that clung to his boots, Eli could feel the thick, tangible reverence that hung in the room. They stood next to the raised pulpit, long lines of deep mahogany pews stood in straight ranks on either side of a red carpeted walkway that led to the large doors opening out onto the square. Guarding the flanks of the pews were rows of thick stone columns, silently bearing the weight of the long balcony that ran in an open U-shape above the sanctuary.

To one of those columns, in the center between the pulpit and the doors to the square, Agent Walker was bound tightly. She looked up at Eli and Maj. Hawkins and tried to shout something but it was mangled by the rags stuffed tightly between her teeth. Eli started to rush forward to untie her but Maj. Hawkins grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and shoved him down behind the pews.

Just as he did gunfire erupted from the balcony above where Agent Walker was bound and shards of splintered pew rained down on Eli’s head. He scrambled towards the sides and pulled himself behind one of the stone pillars. Maj. Hawkins flicked out from the hallway he had rolled back into and fired the shotgun. Agent Walker yelped through her gag as the mangle mass nearly landed on her after toppling over the balcony into a bloody heap.

There were more men above them and their submachine guns roared to life as they tried to pin down Eli and the major. Maj. Hawkins rolled from the hallway and dove into the pew, tearing another man to shreds with his shotgun. As he did, Eli raced down the corridor between the columns and the wall trying to find a way to get to Agent Walker. Two soldiers ran down the steps near the door to the square and Eli ducked to the side, their bullets gouging chunks of stone from the column that shielded him.

He sucked in a deep breath and recalled what Maj. Hawkins had taught him on the range. He dropped to one knee and slid out from the column. The Thompson jumped and kicked in his hand as he fired two quick bursts and the men on the stairs exploded in clouds of crimson, crumpling at the base of the stairs. Pushing himself back to his feet he glanced back at Maj. Hawkins.

He was darting from the pulpit like a demon, spitting booming death from his shotgun. As another man fell with an anguished, gurgling scream he let the shotgun fall and snatched up the M3. The delay was enough to give the soldiers above an opening and he was forced to dive back into cover to avoid the hail of gunfire they sent to find him.

Eli realized as long as they were up there they would have no chance of getting Agent Walker out alive. He raced to the stairs at the end of the church and leapt over the bloody bodies of the men he had killed. His thumb found the cartridge release and replaced the clip with a fresh one, slipped the former in a pocket of his uniform. Once over the bodies he fell to a crouch and slowed so that he was creeping up the staircase step by step. Peering around the corner of the staircase he saw the men who were keeping Maj. Hawkins pinned. Thankfully they hadn’t seen him.

He slid out from the staircase with his weapon raised and fired. The first man’s head exploded into mangled chunks before they had any idea what was happening. The second man’s chest erupted into a mess of ragged holes as he turned to face Eli and his lifeless body rolled backwards over the balcony railing. The last man was too quick to catch unawares. He fired a burst and Eli dove out of the way barely avoiding being ventilated by the volley of lead.

He rolled hard on the stone floor and used the momentum to lift to one knee. The German soldier whipped his gun to face Eli but this time he was too slow. Eli squeezed the trigger of his Thompson firmly, and the man’s throat and lower jaw were torn to scarlet ribbons. Eli was faintly aware of one of the man’s teeth sent skittering across the stones.

Heart pounding, Eli did a quick sweep of the balcony. Satisfied that that all the soldiers lay slain, Eli slapped a fresh clip into his weapon.

“All clear!” he shouted down to Maj. Hawkins, then turned and raced down the stairs. By the time he reached Agent Walker the major had released her from her bonds. She rubbed the back of her head sorely as soon as her hands were free.

“Where’s von Schädel?” she demanded of Eli as soon as he was free.

“What? Forget him. We’re here to rescue you.” Eli protested.

“Where is he!?”

“We don’t have time for this,” Maj. Hawkins growled sternly. “We have to go. Now.”

He handed Agent Walker’s weapons over to her and she cradled them with the affection of a mother who has had her lost children returned to her arms. Shouting echoed from the courtyard Eli and Maj. Hawkins and Eli heard the unmistakable sound of a large number of feat pounding their way to their door.

“Out the front.” Maj. Hawkins ordered.

They raced down the red carpet, its plushness insufficient to muffle to echo of their boots at they dashed to the front door. Eli grabbed the handle of the left door, while Agent Walker took the right. They both looked to Maj. Hawkins, who stood in the center. He did a quick check of his BAR then lifted it to his shoulder. Finding everything in order he gave a quick nod. Eli and Agent Walker flung the doors open and the three raced out blinded by the bright sun into the chaos outside.

Photo Credit: Dunechaser

50,000 Word Challenge: Part 4

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear! by Tim Norris

This is the fourth piece of my 50,000 words in 30 days challenge. It’s a completely unedited first draft written with the primary goal of getting out as many words as possible in a short time, so don’t expect too much from it. More parts will come each week as the challenge progresses. You can read the previous chapter here.

Chapter Four: Rough Landing

The boat ride back to England was short and awkward. Eli took advantage of the trip to study the people in whose hands he was being forced to place his own life. Sgt. Lewis kept to himself for most of the trip, refraining from making all but a few sarcastic remarks. Cpt. O’Donnell’s ebullient nature had slowly surfaced over the span of the afternoon in propitious smiles and failed attempts at light-hearted jokes.

It was strange to see someone appear to be in such good spirits so close to walking into what Eli regarded as suicide. He genuinely seemed at ease with the coming danger. At times the glint in his eye hinted at something else, something that worried Eli a bit – an eagerness for battle. His jokes having fallen flat, he humored Eli’s half-hearted attempts at small talk for a while but even he succumbed to the pall that lay over the group in their anticipation of the mission.

Maj. Hawkins and Agent Walker were like contrasting twin statues. Neither spoke a word the entire trip, though their mirrored stillness couldn’t have contrasted more in its mood. There was a feeling of steel about Maj. Hawkins. He exuded a sense of calm, dutiful command. It stirred Eli a little, if for no other reason that he recognized it was so different from his own nature. The tranquil seas of his eyes were entombed in features of solid stone. Words weren’t necessary. Eli only had to look to know that this was a man who would walk through the gates of Hell without hesitation if his honor demanded it of him. He would probably be wearing that same passive face the whole time he did it.

If Maj. Hawkins was tranquil seas and a steady rock to anchor on, then Agent Walker was an active volcano beset by a violent tempest. She sat as still as he did, but where there was an unfeeling calm gracing his countenance hers was cast in a cold mask of hatred. There was nothing in particular she did to give it away, but Eli could feel it. When her eyes chanced to meet his the hairs on his neck stood on end. He didn’t know why, or what it was directed at, but there was rage in her.

No matter how hard he fought to avoid it, Eli’s eyes always seemed to find their way back to her. Deep down, she genuinely frightened him. Of all the members of the team he was certain that if she was the one to find out he planned on deserting, she would kill him on the spot and be done with it. As much as he feared her, he couldn’t help but feel drawn to her. He felt like a child left unsupervised with a box of fireworks. She scared him, and he found that enticing. That scared him even more. Pushing those feelings away, he retreated into his own thoughts spending the rest of the boat ride plotting his escape.

Their arrival on British shores was followed by a truck ride to the air base they would be leaving from the following night. Brief tours were given and they were shown to their bunks. Maj. Hawkins told them they would be preparing their gear the following morning, then would be getting a few hours of sack time before the mission proceeded. They were free for that night to do as they pleased. Eli ate dinner alone after he had cleaned up a little in his room. He hadn’t showered or shaved since before the beach landing and he stared into the mirror, a little shocked at the changes the last few days had wrought in him.

His hair was a disheveled tangle of sorrel and ochre. A wild forest of matching stubble had sprouted over his jaw and clung to his sharp cheekbones. The burgeoning beard gave his square face a gaunt, shadowed look that accentuated the dark bags under his eyes. Stressful days and sleepless nights had quickly left their mark on him and left him looking haunted and feral. Swift strokes of his razor smoothed away the auburn shadow that clung to his jaw.

For all the damage the danger had done to his visage, his body was largely unaffected. His broad shoulders still flared out solidly, tapering to a tuck at his waist. His form was solid but not excessive. Sharp angles defined his compact muscles, in the foggy mirror his shirtless form looked as if it were carved from wood.

The bandage on his head proved to be unnecessary. The cut had bled a lot but it was tiny, an incision no bigger than a paper clip, and it was in no danger of reopening. The graze on his arm however he cleaned carefully before applying a fresh bandage. It was no more than a deep scratch itself, but he knew how bad it could get if an infection set in.

Feeling somewhat refreshed for the first time since he stepped on a boat bound for Normandy, Eli decided he would take what little free time he had to wander the base and collect his thoughts. There was no telling what he would be facing once they were dropped into Germany. Every scenario he could come up with played before his eyes as he walked aimlessly around the camp. He had no idea when the chance would present itself for him to escape, he had to be ready to take advantage of it at all times.

For a second, he considered trying to escape then. At least then he would be in an English speaking country. General Gerow’s thinly veiled threat whispered back through his ears and he discarded the thought. If he disappeared before the morning they would know he was somewhere in the U.K. – there would be men after him before noon. Eli didn’t know Gen. Gerow very well, but he could tell he wasn’t a man to let loose ends lie untied.

While his thoughts danced around the various opportunities he might have to make his escape, the faint sound of gunfire in the distance tickled his ears. Without his consent Eli’s feet pulled him to the source of the noise. A makeshift firing range had been constructed in the far corner of the airfield. A single person stood at the hay bales marking the firing line, pistol cracking rhythmically. Even in the dim gloaming Eli recognized the lithe form and vulpine hair.

The slide of her handgun locked back and she slid the empty clip free. Eli took the opportunity to step up next to her.

“Agent Walker… right?” he asked. “I’m Eli. Eli Watts.”

She looked over at him as a fresh clip clicked into place. After setting the weapon carefully on the hay bale, she pulled the thick ear protectors off her head. “What?”

Eli reintroduced himself quickly. She stared at him in silence. Though only a few seconds passed Eli felt as though her eyes bored into him for an eternity and he shifted uncomfortably.

“I don’t care who you are private,” she said, breaking the silence. “We have a job to do tomorrow. An important job. I don’t know why we’re being forced to babysit you in the middle of it but we are. I don’t expect you to help us tomorrow, I expect you to stay out of our way until we accomplish our mission. Now, do you have anything to tell me about the operation?”

“N-No. Nothing. I just thought…” Eli stammered, shocked by icy bluntness.

“Excellent,” she said flatly. “Then if you’ll excuse me…” She pulled the mufflers over her ears and snapped the weapon up from the bale. Eli jammed his fingers into his ears as she resumed her methodical firing. Even if it meant living in the dirt in the German countryside foraging for food to survive, Eli would be happy to get away from that woman. He stomped away in a huff, puzzled slightly by how annoyed he was at being cast off so rudely. Once he had gotten far enough away to pull his fingers from his ears he took one last glance back at the range.

The golden disk of the sun burned on the horizon silhouetting the target. In that black mass Eli could detect a small pinprick of light bursting through the void. It was a small hole, the only one in the target, right over the man’s heart.

Eli passed the night fitfully. He tossed and tumbled beneath his sheets, pursued by monsters he could never escape. Finally, dawn blossomed on the horizon, its long fingers brushing away the nightmares and dragging Eli from his restless sleep.

The sheets were cast thoughtlessly on the floor as he sat up in his bed. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, head buried in his palms, before the knock on his door echoed through the room.

“Breakfast is in fifteen minutes,” a man’s voice called from the hall. “Maj. Hawkins wants you in the east barrack in one hour.”

Eli’s feet slid heavily to the floor and he trudged into the bathroom, getting ready as quickly as his foggy mind would allow. It took him thirty minutes to get to the cafeteria. He walked through the doors and scanned the rows of tables.

In the center of the room Sgt. Lewis sat with Cpt. O’Donnell. The captain’s tray was empty, spotted by only the last few vestiges of his meal. Sgt. Lewis on the other hand was still digging into an impressive mound of food. He glanced up between mouthfuls and caught eyes with Eli, nodding slightly in acknowledgment. In the far corner Eli recognized the lonely form of Agent Walker sitting alone in the corner, her back to the door Eli had entered through. His thoughts flitted back to the exchange at the firing range.

Eli decided he would join Sgt. Lewis.

A pile of food grew on Eli’s tray, respectable but lacking the grandeur of Sgt. Lewis’s creation, and once satisfied he set it down next to Sgt. Lewis across from Cpt. O’Donnell. The two men greeted him as he sat.

“Holden here has been filling me in on the fun you had at Omaha,” Cpt. O’Donnell said, smiling. “I wish I could’ve been up there with you guys. I have to say the satchel charge thing was pretty slick.”

“It was nothing, really,” Eli replied looking down at his meal. “I just kind of reacted. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“Well, you’ve earned your place here. What you did may have been what won us that beach in the end.”

Eli felt a touch of color rising to his cheeks and focused harder on his food. Looking to change the subject, he asked Cpt. O’Donnell if he had been fighting there on the beach that morning. Cpt. O’Donnell leaned back in his chair and grinned and he called up memories of the battle. Eli was relieved to have the conversation shift away from himself and listened as Cpt. O’Donnell began recounting his struggle on the sands.

He had been one of the later waves to make a landing, though not by choice he assured. By the time he had made it, the two Tyrannosaurs had been released onto the invasion force and were cutting a swath of destruction through the Allied ranks. Eli shuddered as he told how his gunner crew had been snapped up by one of the monsters. He barely escaped the jaws himself, but had lost his machine gun in the process. Scrambling over the beach he came across a bazooka in the sand, its previous owner long since having passed beyond the need for it. His arms raised to his shoulders as he pantomimed lining one of the beasts up in his sights.

“Psssshhhhhhh, boom!” Eli instinctively shielded his tray from the spittle sprayed by Cpt. O’Donnell’s sound effects. Having only one rocket, Cpt. O’Donnell explained he had abandoned the spent weapon and reclaimed his lost .30 caliber from where his crew had been devoured. Hefting it up himself, he opened up into the other monster as it charged him from across the beach until finally it fell at his feet.

The story was incredible. Eli had a hard time believing anyone could really operate a machine gun by themselves, let alone do it standing, but he figured if there were anyone who could do it the bear of a man regaling him with his adventures would be the one. There was a glint in Cpt. O’Donnell’s eye as he told of his exploits and the broad grin of accomplishment never faded from his face. Eli wanted to ask him more about what had happened, but before he got the chance Sgt. Lewis interceded tapping his watch in front of them. It was time to meet at the bunker.

The walk over was brief, but miserable. The bright morning sun had withdrawn behind a curtain of clouds releasing the first drops of a warm, sticky rain on to the camp. They trudged solemnly up to the concrete barrack and went inside. Maj. Hawkins was waiting for them.

“Good morning gentlemen,” he greeted them without smiling, “I trust you had a good breakfast.”

Only Cpt. O’Donnell nodded.

“This is not standard procedure,” he continued, “but as you know this is no standard operation. You are all experts in your fields and I trust you will be able to outfit yourself properly. You will proceed to the next room where you will be free to appropriate any of the provisions available.”

“Um… shouldn’t we wait for Agent Walker?” Eli chimed in. The instant he said it he wished he hadn’t.

“Agent Walker is being supplied by the agency she works for,” Maj. Hawkins replied in a tone that left no further room for questions. “You may proceed to the armory.”

They stepped through the second set of doors behind Maj. Hawkins and Eli’s jaw dropped. They stood in a room about the size of a high school gym, except instead of bleachers and awkward teenagers the room was lined with rows of tables and crates holding every kind of weapon the U.S. Military had to offer. In one corner were miscellaneous camping supplies, packs and other items Eli didn’t know the function of. Another corner held tables stocked with medical supplies, Sgt. Lewis immediately headed for it. In a third corner were crates of rations and stores of canteens with the last being piled with what looked like every kind of explosive device imaginable.

Cpt. O’Donnell whistled appreciatively and started towards the table of explosives, pausing only for a second to eye a gleaming .50 caliber machine gun he passed on his way. Eli didn’t know where to start. Maj. Hawkins noticed his apprehension and stepped up next to him.

“Would you like some help packing?” he asked.

The firm tone of authority hadn’t left his voice, but there was something else there along with it. A touch of kindness.

“Yes, sir,” Eli said. “I’ve never done this before. I’m not really sure what I need.”

Maj. Hawkins cracked a thin smile. “We’ll get you all set up.”

They began on the far left corner of the room, in the miscellaneous supplies. Maj. Hawkins chose a pack for Eli that wouldn’t get in the way of his parachute during the drop and began plucking items off the table to fit into it. He thought of things that Eli never would have remembered to include, enough supplies to keep him alive for weeks in the wilderness. He made a mental note that when he made his escape, he needed to make sure to take his bag.

Finally, once all the other essentials were packed, Maj. Hawkins led Eli over to the center of the room where the majority of the weapons were. They gleamed on the tables, wood and metal blended into efficient instruments of death. For a second, Eli wondered what had ever become of his rifle from the landing.

“So, what kind of weapon do you prefer?” Maj. Hawkins asked.

Eli shrugged. “I’m honestly not sure, sir. I was trained with a rifle. The M1 Garand.”

Maj. Hawkins chuckled. The sound nearly made Eli jump out of his skin it was so unexpected.

“Holden told me about your skill with the rifle, I prefer my men to be able to hit their targets, private. No, how about this instead.”

He picked a boxy weapon off the table by it’s stock and presented it to Eli. He recognized it at a glance, he thought only officers carried them.

“A Thompson?” He asked.

“It’s the closest thing we’ve got to that MP40 you used in the trenches, and a lot more reliable.”

Eli took the weapon from him reverently. He hefted the weight a little in his hands. For its size it felt about as heavy as his rifle had. Though he had only trained with the rifles the weight of it felt better to him somehow – more natural.

“I like it, sir.”

“Excellent choice, private. I don’t intend there to be much fighting while we’re in there. I want to get in, do what we have to and slip away before they know what’s happening. Any action we do see is likely going to be up close in personal.”

Eli understood. Accuracy didn’t matter as much when you were up close. Having more ammunition would be far more important.

“Since you’ve never used one of those before, I’d like to give you some pointers.” He gathered a small stack of clips from the nearby crates. “Follow me private.”

They walked out the doors on the other side of the bunker, past Sgt. Lewis who had moved on to eye the barrel of a long Springfield rifle, and out into the drizzling rain. Maj. Hawkins then led Eli over to the practice field where Agent Walker had been shooting the previous night. He instructed Eli in the workings of the weapon first, how to care for the mechanisms, load cleanly and clear jams. Then they moved on to target practice.

At the beginning, Eli was terrible. Slowly though, through Maj. Hawkins’s carefully tutoring, he began to show improvement. He was definitely no Sgt. Lewis, but for the first time he was actually feeling a little confident about his marksmanship. Maj. Hawkins’s lessons were excellent. He seemed to intuitively know every little correction Eli needed to make to his form. After about three hours of training, and several trips back to the arsenal for more ammunition, Eli was able to reliably place every single bullet in the target from any firing position.

Maj. Hawkins declared that they didn’t have the time for him to improve any further, and it would have to be good enough. They walked back toward the center of the base. Maj. Hawkins had scheduled a meeting to go over the details of the operation again before their final meal, and they had to hurry in order to not be late.

“You’re a fast learner, private,” Maj. Hawkins said over his shoulder as they slogged through the mud. “You’ve got a lot of potential.”

Eli was glad for the gloom as it obscured the bit of color rose in his cheeks. He wasn’t sure why he cared, but something about the complement struck a chord with him.

The briefing went quickly. With the exclusion of Eli the team had memorized the details completely. After the drop they would make their way southeast until they reached the laboratory outside of Hamburg. They would take the facilities, capture or kill Dr. Kessler and destroy the building and all the research with it. A short trip back to the evac point and they would be on their way home. Mission accomplished.

They broke for a late lunch after the briefing. Eli, Sgt. Lewis and Cpt. O’Donnell found seats together. Eli offered a place to Agent Walker as she walked by but she declined politely and found a seat by herself to dine alone. Looking around Eli realized that he hadn’t seen Maj. Hawkins come in with them.

“Maj. Hawkins doesn’t eat,” Sgt. Lewis explained.

“Sometimes, I think he’s secretly a robot,” Cpt. O’Donnell added.

Over their food they discussed the equipment they had chosen. Most of the conversation flew well above Eli’s head, though they became interested when he told them about his choice and the crash course in marksmanship. Time slipped by quickly as they ate and talked, and soon it was time for them to get some shut-eye. The drop would take place under the cover of night. There was still no guarantee they would be able to slip in undetected, but that was when they stood their best chance. It was important to get some rest while they could.

Eli began peeling his soggy uniform off before his door had even had time to click shut. He shuffled over to his bed and flopped into it heavily. The shooting practice had been more tiring than he would’ve expected and his arms ached from attempting to control the bucking firearm. Despite the fatigue that clung to his muscles, his mind was alive and burning. The time was almost there. By the next morning he would be in Germany and he could make his bid for freedom.

He tried to ignore the thought that he would have to fly over Germany’s network of anti-aircraft guns and then dive out of a plane to get there.

Time crawled as he tossed and turned in his bed, straining to force his subconscious to submit to sleep. Eventually, the struggle itself proved mentally tiring enough to overcome his anxiety and he quietly slipped into a silent, dreamless slumber.

A loud knock wrenched Eli back to the waking world. The voice of the man from that morning called through the door, informing him that he needed to prepare his gear and report to the airfield in one hour. He numbly slid from the bed and cleaned himself up, then headed off to the bunker to retrieve his pack.

His mostly assembled pack was where he had left it. He added in the last handful of items, as well as things that would be carried on his uniform, ammunition, grenades, a knife and his weapon. Almost as a second thought, he stopped and strapped on a sidearm. He had never practiced with a pistol before, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to have one. Taking one last glance around the room, he decided that was all he could carry and headed out to the airfield.

The light drizzle had turned into a heavy rain. Thick thunderclouds blacked out the night sky into a solemn, starless sheet of Stygian darkness. Lit by harsh lights the rest of his group stood by an enormous four engine plane, its engines already rumbling in anticipation for a flight through the stormy skies. Eli jogged over to them, though he was in no hurry to board.

Maj. Hawkins looked up at him as he approached. “Glad you could make it private. It’s time to go.”

With that, they climbed aboard. Eli had a feeling, as he climbed up into the enormous aircraft that it was one of the last things he would ever do.

The group strapped themselves into the seats lining the wall of the rear of the aircraft. Over the low rumble of the idling engines sheets of rain could be heard pounding on the roof of the plane. Eli felt a little like he was sitting inside a giant tin can. It happened that Maj. Hawkins, Cpt. O’Donnell and Sgt. Lewis were strapped in across from Eli, with Agent Walker seated by his side.

He considered trying to start a conversation with her, but he realized that this might not be the best time, particularly given his track record in that department. With a shout back from the pilot the engines roared on the sides of the massive plane and they lurched forward down the runway. Eli’s heart began pounding even harder. This was it. He was really on his way into Germany. He was on his way to Germany to destroy a secret laboratory that was somehow producing dinosaurs. He decided it was best not to try to wrap his mind around it.

The plane shuddered as the bounced and bumped through a thick patch of turbulence. The pilot called back their ETA, but Eli couldn’t tell if anyone other than the major had heard it. He leaned forward as much as he could in his straps and, bellowing to be heard over the engines, began going over the details of their mission one final time.

The flight dragged on for what felt like forever. Outside the thin wall of metal that held them aloft, Eli could hear the violence of the storm and the roar of the winds rushing past. They were forced to fly low to avoid radar detection, but it put them right in the middle of the thunderstorm. Faintly, Eli began to hear a new sound through the fragile walls.

It was faint, filtered through the anger of the storm. Somewhere between a ‘pop’ and a ‘boom’. He knew it wasn’t thunder, but he couldn’t quite place it. Then it dawned on him with a shudder. It was anti-aircraft fire.

A flashing red light flicked on in the back and Eli faintly heard a shout from the direction of the cabin. They were nearing the drop zone. Almost as one, everyone unbuckled themselves and was on their feet. Everyone except Eli, who had to struggle to figure out how to release himself from his harness. Once free he joined his team and one of the members of the flight crew outfitted him with a parachute.

He had been given several crash courses in parachuting during the briefings, but this would be his first actual drop. He reflected on how awful of a term that was, crash course. Frantically, he raced through everything he had been taught. Most people don’t have their first jump at low altitude in the middle of a thunderstorm. Of course most people don’t have flak guns to worry about either.

At the touch of a button the rear cargo hatch of the plane slowly began to lower, providing a window to the churning, inky skies. Eli realized, staring into the black maw in front of him, that he couldn’t do it. There was no way he could jump. He looked over to Maj. Hawkins, scrambling for an excuse for why he had to stay on the plane. Maj. Hawkins looked back at him and smiled a little as if he understood that it was just impossible for Eli to jump.

The man from the flight crew yelled one last time to indicate they had reached the drop zone and before Eli could react, Maj. Hawkins grabbed him by the collar. With a strength he couldn’t have imagined was in him, he flung Eli from the back of the plane into the rolling nothingness. Eli had no time to react. He was tumbling through the air. Ground filled his view, then black clouds, then ground then clouds. A detached part of him recognized the sound of his own hoarse screaming through the roll of the storm.

The same firm grip that had cast him into the void dug into his shoulder, stopping his spin. He frantically looked over to find Maj. Hawkins descending next to him. A slight smile cracked over the one corner of his mouth, and he released Eli’s shoulder snaking his hand to his chest. Eli saw the major’s hand snap back from his chest and the breath rushed out of him as a gigantic force ripped him back upward by his shoulders. No, not upward. He was still falling, but slower now, more controlled. He looked up and saw that his parachute was open above him, shielding him slightly from the pounding rain.

Maj. Hawkins and the rest of the team had deployed their chutes as well and he could see them gliding down around him toward the ground. He realized that the major must have pulled Eli’s cord before pulling his own. He didn’t know whether he owed him his life for pulling his cord, or should punch him in the face for throwing him out of the back of a moving plane. He decided he would ponder that later. For right now he had bigger concerns, the onrushing ground for instance.

The dark mass of Earth rose swiftly up to meet him. Below Eli was a rapidly approaching ring of tall pine trees, jutting up from the ground like pikes. Within the ring he could just make out the wide clearing that had been selected as their drop zone through the dark sheets of rain. Panic jolted Eli as he realized the strong winds were pushing him away into the verdant spear points of the forest. He fumbled for the cable on the right side of his chute and tugged hard, twirling himself back over the safety of the clearing.
Despite the storm and winds, the other members of his team had guided their parachutes expertly and were set to land in a tight group in the center of the clearing.

Eli was not so skilled. He had avoided impalement, but the section of clearing that was racing to meet his feet was on the far left edge away from the rest of the group. He looked down at the dark grass below. His parachute slowed him, but not by a lot. This was not going to be a soft landing. He thrust his legs out at the very last second like he had been taught, buckling them as soon as they made contact with the muddy grass. He rolled to absorb as much of the force as he could, but it still jarred his bones and clattered his jaw together.

For a second, Eli just laid there. The parachute flapped behind him, tugging him for a moment toward the trees then relenting as it was caught and released by the capricious winds. The cables of the chute had bound Eli when he rolled, and their embrace tightened and relaxed with each pull. The rain that fell on him had a chill to it now, though the mud that caked him had a comforting warmth to it. He considered just staying there. Rolling over slightly he looked up at the trees that had nearly skewered him. Reflecting on how close they were.

Close.

Eli snapped into action as he made the connection, struggling to reach his knife. His fingers finally entwining around the hilt he pulled it free and cut himself from the bonds of his parachute. As if it were pleased to be emancipated it leapt into the wind and fluttered off to be tangled in the trees Eli now stood to face.

The woods were right there. Now was the best chance he could possibly ask for. He glanced back toward the rest of the group, knowing they were in the center of the field. They had all landed as well, and he could faintly see four dark shapes rising from the mud. Eli didn’t know if they had seen him land or not, but between the dark of night and the curtain of rain there would be no finer opportunity for escape than now.

He slipped his empty parachute pack from his shoulders and sheathed his knife. He took special care to quickly go over his supplies. Thankfully, everything he had packed was still with him. Surviving in the wilderness would be a breeze with all this equipment. Finally, Eli thought, I’m safe.

He dashed toward the tree line, eager to slip into his sanctuary of freedom but still trying to be careful not to fall in the rain slick mud. With a quick glance back as he slipped through the tree line he confirmed that the team didn’t seem to see him. Four dark shifting shapes still stood out from the blackness of the distant center of the field. For a second, just a second, a sharp twinge of regret struck Eli’s heart. He shook it off as quickly as it had come. Those people weren’t his friends. Even if they were, he resolved, I wouldn’t be about to throw my life away just for some stupid mission.

Eli’s eyes were slow to adjust to the new blackness of the forest. The rain soaked field behind him had been dark, but the forest was sheer void. The trees and plants were cut from obsidian, and invisible hands stretched out to scratch and claw at Eli’s face and clothes as he blindly pushed his way deeper into the woods. Eventually, as he stumbled forward he began to pick out new shapes, to notice branches which he previously would have found with his forehead. As his vision cleared he picked up his speed.

The temptation to reach for his flashlight was strong but he knew better. If they decided to come looking for him it would be like a beacon drawing them right to him. There was also no way of knowing if there were any German soldiers nearby. Eli wasn’t terribly interested in being found by anyone that night, so the flashlight stayed off.

An invisible force reached out and clung to Eli’s right ankle dragging him down face first to the forest floor. He scrambled to pull it free, visions of some creeping monster flashing in his eyes but calmed down when he realized he had just snagged his foot in an exposed root. The root struggled to hold him but he wrenched his foot free and sat there for a moment laughing at his lack of nerve. There aren’t any monsters out here…

Crack.

Even Eli’s thoughts fell silent as he heard the sound behind him. It was gone as quickly as it had come, replaced again by the soft patter of the rain through the pines. Fleeting as it was the sound was unmistakable. The snapping of a trodden on twig.

Slowly he pushed himself up to his feet, taking care to be as silent as possible. His ears were perked, scanning for any out of place sound amid the whispering of the wind and rain in the boughs. There was nothing but the familiar hush. He wondered if he had imagined the whole thing. Perhaps it had just been his nerves, still jarred from his fall. Maybe it was just a deer.

Crack.

Eli’s head snapped to his left. It was the same sound, the snap of a twig. This time it had come from the side. The furious beat of Eli’s pulse filled his ears, threatening to drown out even the rain. His right hand instinctively slid down to find his submachine gun. The urge rose in him to run back the way he had come, but he would just be running back to the field where his team was. They must have realized I’m missing by now, he thought, they may still be looking for me.

He peered into the blackness, squinting in an effort to peel back the dark veil in front of him. Slowly he could see a shape shifting ahead of him. A shadow slithered in the space between the trees. It dipped and bobbed a little as it moved, advancing toward Eli methodically. Each footstep was placed carefully, like a cat unsure if the prey it’s stalking has noticed its presence. With a bob it gently stepped close enough for Eli to see it clearly in the dark, and instantly Eli wished he had stayed with the group.

The eyes of the Deinonychus glinted even in the dim light. The colors of its plumage weren’t as bright as Eli had imagined, but rather a mossy, brownish green. It saw that Eli had noticed it and it froze, one terrible foot hung mid-step in the air, tucked carefully to its belly.

Struggling to keep his hands from shaking Eli gradually lifted his Thompson to his shoulder being extra careful not to make any sudden movements that might spur the raptor to charge. His training the other day had made him confident he could hit his target from this distance. He wasn’t happy about the noise it would make, but that would be something to worry about later – when he wasn’t about to be disemboweled. He peered down the iron sights of the weapon. Taking a deep breath, he prepared to squeeze the trigger.

A shifting to his right froze his finger in place. He peered from the corner of his eyes and could just make out another dark shape, crouching in the shadows to his right. Waiting. A soft rustle wafted from his left where he had heard the second twig snap and realized he was being surrounded.

Run.

Dropping his weapon to dangle from its strap at his shoulder he turned as fast as could and dove back the way he came. Tearing through the branches and bramble that had reached out to caress him on his escape into the woods. Behind him he heard a trill. It had a gurgling quality like the gobble of a turkey, but was strangely melodic – almost like a songbird. The first trill was joined by another, then another, each adding another key until they combined into a haunting chord.

Eli would have found it to be a beautiful sound if he didn’t recognize it for what it was. A hunting call. The warbling trills cut silent in unison and the even more terrifying sound of three agile, muscular bodies sliding through the underbrush met Eli’s ears. The sound drove him faster, rivulets of blood running down his cheeks from tolls the pine branches were taking as they whipped past.

He wasn’t going to make it. He could hear their footfalls now, slapping rhythmically in the mud and roots. This was where he was going to die.

A much thicker wall of brush rose in front of him and he crashed through it blindly. The brush ripped at his eyes as he tore through it and he snapped them shut tightly, refusing to stop in his blindness. His feet no longer felt the uneven tangle of roots, and he thought he heard the faint jingle of metal moving in front of him. His feet slid out from under him on the new, slick surface and fell forward into the muck.

“Private Watts!” a familiar woman’s voiced called out in surprise.

Eli heard the sound of the tree line erupt behind him in a symphony of growls and snarls. Another familiar voice swore in the darkness and the world around Eli exploded in the sound of gunfire. Then, there was silence.

A firm grip wrapped itself around the back of Eli’s collar and hoisted him up from the mud. Coughing and choking, as much from the mud he had swallowed from the tightness of his collar, Eli looked around him and realized where he was.

He had run right back to the landing zone. Cpt. O’Donnell held Eli upright until he was sure he could stand on his own, patting him on the back as he coughed. Ahead of him in the field Maj. Hawkins stood in the rain between Sgt. Lewis and Agent Walker. All three had their weapons out, held at their waists. Thin wisps of smoke coiled up from the barrels of Sgt. Lewis’s Springfield and Agent Walker’s M3.

Eli glanced behind him as they sloshed through the mud over to him. The pack of Deinonychus lay broken in the mud. The two to the left of Eli were riddled with bullet holes. The one to his right looked almost untouched, except for the single crimson blossom between its cold eyes.

“What happened?” Maj. Hawkins demanded as he stepped up to Eli. “Where were you?”

“I… I was in the woods. I was lost.”

He narrowed his eyes slightly at Eli. Agent Walker stepped up holding a muddy brown mess in her hand.

“We found your parachute here in the field,” she said. “How did you get in the woods?”

Eli opened his mouth to answer but no sound came out. He scoured his mind for some plausible excuse.

Mis mind froze again when another familiar sound came from the distance in the trees Eli had just escaped from. A chorus of trills and hoots riding on the winds of the storm.

“Can we discuss this later?” Sgt. Lewis suggested.

Maj. Hawkins nodded. “Let’s go.”

Cpt. O’Donnell brushed past Eli and the four broke into a run toward the far line of trees. Eli had no choice but to follow them. The calls of their hunters taunting him from the forest behind.

Photo Credit: Tim Norris

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Continue to the final installment of the 50,000 word challenge.